The International Year of Cooperatives, established by the United Nations, reflects the evolving insight that forming cooperatives can be a sustainable way to organise communities. One telling example of this is the community cooperatives of Mondragon, Spain. They show how a town can sustainably organise its economy locally, while remaining competitive in the global economy. Equally, they show how cooperative forms of organisation can make societies more fair and resilient towards external factors, without opting out into isolation.

Since the establishment of the Mondragon Corporation in 1956, the economy of the Basque town of Mondragon has been developed around a large group of worker-owned manufacturing and related businesses, including a technical college. Of the 28,000 residents of the town of Mondragon, 24,000 have bought into the cooperative. Buying into the cooperative costs 15,000 Euro, an amount which is returned with interest at retirement. Everybody who has bought into the cooperative is an equal partner and has an equal vote in decision making.

The corporate values of the workers-owned Mondragon Corporation are cooperation and solidarity. As such, the Mondragon cooperatives aim to balance interests at many levels – for example, the individual with the community, the particular co-op with the whole co-op system, the human interests of workers with the necessities of the market, the industrial process with the environment. The sense of cooperation inspired at the workplace positively affects social relations in the town. For example, many residents are members of gastronomic societies, which are based on the same cooperative principles.

The MONDRAGON Corporation has grown to be the seventh largest company in Spain in terms of asset transfers. Worldwide, the Mondragon Corporation has 85,000 employees. Its network now includes 120 cooperatives, among which there are 87 high-tech industrial firms, 14 research and development institutes, 4 agricultural cooperatives, 7 schools and 1 university, retail stores, housing complexes and a cooperative bank. The scale of the Mondragon Corporacion helps in keeping the many smaller cooperatives alive in times of economic adversity. When people are redundant in one cooperative, they are offered a place in another. In this way, while unemployment in Spain has been soaring since 2008, unemployment in Mondragon has remained ten percent lower than in the rest of Spain. That’s what we call an impressive outcome!

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